“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” wrote the great man of German letters Walter Benjamin more than seventy years ago. I was reminded of the relevance of these much-quoted words at a recent conference at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, where I gave a paper on German historic buildings and “national pasts.”
Since my first trip to Europe in the early 1970s I’ve seen Germany become not only the dominant financial power of the Continent but also a model for how to memorialize a violent past. Historic traces of Nazism and the Holocaust are everywhere in the built environment and in the culture—so much so that critics sometimes complain that Germany has too much memory. Germans show too much sensitivity about atrocities against racial and political others, they say. Germans flagellate themselves with critical memory, making it impossible to move forward. But as I did research for my paper I was reminded again that the problem for Germany—indeed for any country that claims to belong to the civilized world—is not too much critical memory, but rather how a nation’s darker heritage relates to everything else.
Consider Berlin. The gleaming towers of the city’s reconstructed Potsdamer Platz and the renovated Reichstag remind the visitor of present-day Germany’s economic and political clout. Just south of the Reichstag and world-famous Brandenburg Gate is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a stunning example of commemorative architecture designed by the American Peter Eisenman and consisting of some 2,700 concrete steles arranged in an undulating grid pattern covering 19,000 square meters. It was estimated to have cost €25 million and includes a documentation center for those thousands of visitors who walk through its haunting gray passageways.
In contrast to Eisenman’s monumentality, there is nearby the Topography of Terror, a monument that almost never saw the light of day. Originally slated to have a highway running through it, this slice of Berlin real estate, once bordered by the Berlin Wall, was first publicized by citizens’ actions groups in the 1980s. Their efforts led to the excavation and display of Gestapo prison cells where the Nazis tortured and murdered political opponents. Unlike so many commemorative installations, the Topography manages to convey the raw violence of a terrorist regime at the site where the perpetrators plied their trade. Only former concentration camp sites have a similar potential for learning about the Nazi regime in situ.
It’s dizzying to contemplate. In just a matter of minutes, visitors can travel from the heights of capitalist civilization to the dark depths of fascist barbarism—a true chiaroscuro of experience. Yet like paintings in an exhibition, everything fits together rather too seamlessly. No matter how faithfully architects and preservationists have reminded Germans of the violence done on their behalf, a kind of commemorative business as usual coordinates the whole ensemble and serves it up to an enthusiastic public. History’s power to shock the present out of its everydayness gets blunted. Sites of atrocity and trauma become destinations for a kind of “extreme tourism.”
This is not what Benjamin had in mind. He wanted people to see history’s jagged shards and edges. He insisted not only that each document of civilization was linked to a history of barbarism but also that barbarism tainted each document in the manner it was transmitted from owner to owner and generation to generation. The only solution from his point of view was “to brush history against the grain” and “blast open the continuum of history.” His modus operandi was the permanent revolutionizing of memory.
I made a similar plea for critical memory in my paper, though I wish now I had used Benjamin more than I did. The paper was well received, yet one conferee, a Polish graduate student at the Institute who had served as a tour guide in his home country, had a question for me that I never fully answered: In practical terms, how to keep an all-consuming “heritage industry” from neutralizing the critical charge that sites of atrocity ought to have for their visitors? How, in other words, to “operationalize” Benjamin’s concept?
Germans themselves have offered creative responses to the query. One thinks of so-called “counter-monuments,” or Gegendenkmäler, that both harken back to atrocity in the past and also question the concept of the monument itself. A good example is Jochen and Esther Shalev-Gerzes’ stark, 12-meter-high pillar made of hollow aluminum that had been coated with soft lead. It was erected in 1986 in the Hamburg commercial district of Harburg. The Gerzes invited passersby to scribble messages on the monument, which was gradually lowered into the ground over several years. Once the disappearing act was completed, a burial stone covered the top of the monument, and the only thing visitors saw was the inscription: “Harburg’s Monument against Fascism.”
Although some complained of the monument’s ugliness and multicolored graffiti, while it was above ground it spoke powerfully of Europe’s vanished Jewish millions. That the monument was not constructed in a quiet park isolated from the bustle of the modern city but rather in the middle of a congested commercial center made its challenge to memorial conventions all the more effective. Other German, Israeli, Polish, and American artists have constructed equally compelling counter-monuments over the years. But how much influence do such structures finally have? And how can their creators be certain that visitors will “get it”?
Even where the odds are good that critical memory will play a dominant role, such efforts have had a tough time of it. The Bavarian city of Nuremberg was made infamous by the annual Nazi party rallies of the Third Reich and the postwar military tribunals that prosecuted Nazi war criminals. But as art historian Paul Jaskot’s recent The Nazi Perpetrator: Postwar German Art and the Politics of the German Right (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) has shown, the vast spaces of the former Nazi party congress grounds in Nuremberg have never found an effective memorial use. Instead corporate, real estate, and municipal interests have conformed the space to their own purposes. The result has been a Hungarian goulash of past and present: new suburbs, a new convention center and concert hall, a little bit of history in the form of a documentation center and other memorial installations. It is as if a Goldilocks Principle had been in operation whereby the city’s memorial porridge was kept not too hot and not too cold but “just right.”
Americans will recognize themselves in some of this. Our accomplishments in pinpointing past injustices have been impressive, our goals honorable. We have our Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., an institution that has become a model of responsible scholarship and public outreach. We have our books, films, television shows, conferences, and monuments reminding us of the nation’s ongoing history of racism. We have Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. We have future challenges in remembering our Abu Ghraibs and Gitmos and drone attacks. We have still not gotten the balance right between commemorating 9/11 and openly facing the even greater destruction our retaliation has brought about, but we know we will try to get it right. Yet somehow all the ragged edges and barbs of critical memory get absorbed into the great commemorative sponge of the present. Business goes on, and the marketing and consumption of memory go on with it.
What then can be done?
My answer to the Polish student finally came down to vigilance—or I wish it had come down to that when I stumbled through my response. Just as conscientious citizens in modern democracies must guard the right to vote, so they must ensure that barbarism still get its due in public memory cultures. How we do that depends on site, medium, audience, event, and many other factors. History, fiction, popular culture—think of Art Spiegelman’s justly famous graphic novel Maus—all have a role to play. Above all, it depends on seeing Benjamin’s words as both a call to critical action and a cautionary tale about what happens when successful attempts to create a critical memory of barbarism get washed out by the hum of the neo-liberal commemoration industry.